quotes & notes from
A Sack Full of Sun
Conrad Balfour
(1928 – 2008)

This page:

A Sack Full of Sun



index pages:

Conrad Balfour was the Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights from January, 1970, to April, 1971.

A Sack Full of Sun

Copyright © 1974 by Dillon Press, Inc.


Out of it all, I have come to cherish two beliefs: first, that the greatest risk in our society is to tell the truth; and second, that we must learn to exclaim to a stranger the words “I love you.” For love, undenied, unquestioned, is the only way this planet of ours will be salvaged.


For the next five years, including those as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Rights, I erupted in explosive confrontation with anything opposed to human dignity. I sometimes lost sight of prudence and tact and common sense. I reacted with my heart and often frightened well-meaning peers with my outbursts. But those turbulent years helped to cleanse me.

I found that there is no bible on earth strong enough to convince me that Jews are inferior. No historic literature to show that Christians are superior to anybody. To live as Christ is a marvelous undertaking, but to deny Indians their Great Spirit is to commit armed religious robbery. Neither Christ, Buddha, nor Muhammad has a corner on “good.”

I found that not only religious bodies, but governments, too, commit crimes.




Majorities and minorities, writers and readers, the titled and the nameless . . . all commit crimes. Though we are of like flesh, it is only the few doing their penance for all of the unwounded others.

Near the beginning of the showing I was struck by a stunning portrait of Nureyev. His leonine hair at the ceiling of the frame shook the room alive. But his face! His face was full of the most fantastic zeal for life that I could imagine. His smile pounced out at me. The lines around his mouth said, in a hundred languages, “I love you.” I became ignited. There was no escaping the sunny magic of this beautiful man. My eyes ran over the portrait in great circles, pulling out of it every fleck of black and white that composed Nureyev’s countenance. Of a sudden my spirits bolted up from despair to elation. It happened. Just like that. It happened. For the first conscious moment in my life I was aware that my experience was one of man loving man. Call it what you will . .  fraternal, platonic, impassioned. I knew. It was more than that. I knew.

Note (Hal’s):
The photograph was by Richard Avedon.

— end note




On August 21, 1969, guards inhumanely tear-gassed nine naked men in a manner that stripped from them the last frayed threads of dignity. No one guard was ever held accountable. And although the governor called for an investigation, the legislature held hearings, the Corrections Commissioner stated his regrets, and the Grand Jury met in private court, they all condoned that terrible act of 1969. Not one of them had the humanity to put his moral sensitivities ahead of pressure, politics, or public judgment.

I’ve never been gassed before. I laid on the floor, then I got up and put a blanket over my face. I threw up blood the next day. It was specially bad by the commode. The water in the bowl attracts gas, ya dig . . . .

Investigator Walt Jones: They were in there about six to seven days.

Kamps: Oh well, whatever, they were in there, they didn’t get any clothes. And I would like to add that the fourth morning, I just got called every rotten name you could think of . . . and I didn’t take any kind of action against any of them. They called me every dirty, low-down name a human being could be called . . . awful!

Note (Hal’s):
Lt. Kamps was in charge of the prison guard detail that gassed the inmates.

— end note

“A few years ago a psychopathic inmate was constantly kept in the hole. If someone made trouble they would let George out into the population. They’d inform him that the troublemaker had called George a snitch. George would hunt down his victim with giant fists or a knife. He was deadly. When the victim was mutilated then George was put back in Solitary for punishment — until the next time.”

The Senate Subcommittee on Corrections was scheduled to hold a hearing soon on the Stillwater case, and for this meeting, Paul wanted my help. “I want changes as much as you do, Conrad. I hope you can tell the subcommittee everything that you know to be shameful. I think it can help us all.”

I spoke to the subcommittee for about three hours. At the end, Paul stood at the brown lectern and assailed me. Paul was a political man.

Note (Hal’s):
Paul Keves was Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

— end note




“What are we going to do about all the legislators who tell me that we have GOT to do something about the commissioner?”

I said something inadequate, I don’t remember what, because I had lost my composure and could make no intelligent response.

“As long as I am governor of this state, there will never be a homosexual on my staff!” His voice was booming. I was still in shock. “And as long as I am governor of this state there will never be legislation to protect such people!”

Note (Hal’s):
This was Minnesota Governor Harold LeVander, who had appointed Balfour Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights.

— end note

That night I was Indian. I felt the cover of sadness tucking me into my Indianness.

Never again would I pledge allegiance to a flag. The stars symbolized grand larceny . . . each five-pointer evidence left at the scene of the crime, each stripe a devastating horizontal of lands plundered and breasts bloodied. Oh how the squinted eyes must tear when Old Glory is unfurled — to the conquerors a source of pride, to the conquered a tale of horror. How many plains are they buried under? How many wayside historical markers interrupt scenic routes with weeping inscriptions. Oh God! Stand ready to request Indian forgiveness. Humanity is not God enough to cry enough, to care enough. You must.

[...] the returning camera would catch Dave with a look of concern, or disapproval, or wonder, or pain. He often told me that it was not good policy for him to wear his editorial looks and he would try next time to appear neutral. But next time the camera would catch him again with torture in his face or tears behind the eyes or judgment on his brow.

He felt guilty around me. He always thought that I was doing meaningful things to help the world, while he merely reported the efforts of important mortals. Dave would praise me and others and wonder how we kept going in this screwed-up universe.

Note (Hal’s):
Dave Moore was the longtime news anchor for WCCO-TV.

— end note




Note (Hal’s):
This section is Balfour’s Boston family background, including discovering who his parents were.

— end note

Rosella One day I had a painful, hacking cough. Mom boiled an onion on our black potbelly stove and made me drink the fuming liquid. Knowing full well that this concoction was going to kill me, I drank it down, cried, and then never coughed again.




The body was thick and strong, the hands partly gnarled and wide. Like all his brothers, he walked high and majestically. He walked as if the earth were a billiard-smooth ball and its only projection the six-foot brown of his frame.

This was enough. This was all Clyde Bellecourt needed to stand above a crowd, to match his charisma against the electric of other fascinating figures. Yet there was more. He had a voice. A voice immodestly magnificent. A voice never wasted. A group would talk of governors and issues and small solutions with courteous interruptions and quick enthusiasm while Clyde kept the thunder quiet in his gut. It was like a cat, waiting to pounce up and out until ready to leap back into the cave from whence it came. The sound made you recall thick Maracaibo coffee and fresh sugarcane, coconut meat, and mud. It was burnished steel and mixing cement . . . the door to a metal vault or a black sky.

Note (Hal’s):
There’s an account here of an American Indian Movement meeting in Minneapolis, during a dispute between Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt over the enforcement of a policy against drinking.

— end note

Joe Friday and Sunday evenings, week after week, Joe stood before them and inspired. Their sentence of time, inexorable, glacial, paralytic, became in his hands chunks of rubble that they could rebuild into castles of hope in a clearly foreseeable tomorrow.
“Brothers. Sisters. They pretty good folk, you know. I mean they serious. Put ’em in your hat and you ain’t gonna get rained on. I mean . . . put ’em in a bag, brother, and you got a sack full of sun.”

Their curriculum — politics, mathematics, Swahili, history — were subjects whose content was a distant second to the merits of escapting the death sentence of humdrum and boredom. They never minded what they learned as long as there was something to learn, for in the learning they survived.

The prison authorities allowed the Afro-Americans to congregate in an educational setting, but they did not approve because they do not approve survival. Inmates learned how far to push the establishment. Then the establishment became sensitive to how far it could push blacks, and at the end of a day, as in Dow Jones averages, everyone tallied losses and gains. Every day the signals changed, the rules came in on themselves, the games went on, and the way to be smart was to be dumb. As an outsider, I could never recognize Sandstone’s posture from one visit to the next.

Joe Archie knew the games as well as any. As a result of his fine handling of the players, he was elected Prime Minister — by a group of blacks who felt that to beat majors and colonels you create a general. He was more than title, however. He was a spirit who moved men to hope and courage. Joe and the Afro-Americans fanned flames in prisons across the land. When Sandstone transferred Joe’s ministers from Minnesota to Kansas or Ohio or Pennsylvania, it was like letting rabbits loose in Australia. These prisons soon emulated Sandstone’s revolution and renaissance, as black groups became self-help forces.

There was depth to him. The pain was in you because you felt Joe Archie was rewarding your life with insight to important lessons. He never solicited your pity. He judged you by what you gave yourself — not by what you could give him. He glued his ideas together with a philosophy of love that transcended color in a prison jungle.
“You do all that dreamin’ . . . I’ve watched you. That faraway look in your face, thinkin’ of savin’ the world, thinkin’ of savin’ our people, then you get sad, and you don’t think you’re big enough anymore, and then you move away from it a little. I’m even dreamin’. I wanta save me and make a contribution . . . then I get sad and think it’s crazy. I doubt. I move away. Just like you.”
Two blacks, Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts, were on death row for a double murder they did not commit, and their case was up for retrial in Port St. Joe. But their lawyers felt they would never get a fair trial there. They were trying to get a change of venue, and for that, the signatures we carried would help.

The lawyers for Pitts and Lee won their plea for a change of venue, but they lost any hope for a fair trial. The judge designated the town of Marianna, Florida, as the new location. [...] If they could try this case outside the Florida panhandle — Miami or even Talahassee — Pitts and Lee would go free. No court would be so blind to the strong evidence showing the innocence of these two men. No court except those in Gulf and Jackson counties.

Five hundred signatures were delivered to Irwin Block. Gene Miller wrote to me in Minneapolis and said that white citizens of Marianna had marched through town protesting the efforts to free Freddie and Wilbert. A cloth dummy had been hanged in effigy, crumpled and lifeless [...]

The court denied a change of venue. The judge informed the defense that Marianna knew little of the crime. In the winter of 1972, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee were tried and found guilty of a double murder, and for the second time in their lives were sentenced to death by the electric chair.

Note (Hal’s):
An online background search reveals that as a result of Pulitzer-winning coverage by Gene Miller, the two men were freed with a gubernatorial pardon in 1975. In 1998, they were paid compensation by the state of Florida for their wrongful incarceration.

— end note

text checked (see note) Oct 2005

top of page